SYRPER GOES TO THE THEATRE FOR IRISH FARE

FOURTH POST – SEPTEMBER 23, 2012 – SYRPER GOES TO THE THEATRE AT THE ABREACT;  IRISH THEMES DOMINATE;  “A SKULL IN CONNEMARA” IS REVIEWED. 

“…..round figures stark naked in the stockinged feet in Connemara….”  (Lucky’s frenetic soliloquy in “Waiting for Godot”,  Act 1.)    Becket scowls from the Heavens once again.

                 Photos of Becket smiling fetch over $2,000,000 on the odd-bird markets

“A Skull in Connemara” (1997) is the first of several plays by writers of Irish ancestry.  It opened on September 7, 2012 at the Abreact Theatre to some well-deserved adulation.  The Abreact is becoming quite a local gem of a theatre with its startlingly powerful renditions of Becket’s “Godot” and “Endgame” which were reviewed grandiosely in SyrPer and declared Manhattan-worthy; all of this taking place in a city which vies with Gary, Indiana for the “Ever-Degenerating Urban Cesspool Prize”.  Perhaps, if more theatres were to open in Detroit with such quality performances driven by such perfervidly passionate acting troupes, we may have to grudgingly reconsider Detroit’s place among the Soporific Citadels of Suppuration.   

The plays provenance is interesting.  The writer is Martin McDonagh who, even more interestingly, smiles about as much as Becket.  He is Irish, obviously, but lived his entire life in London after his parents left him and his brother behind in order to return to Ireland.  He is an Academy Award winner for his Best Live Action Short Film: “Six Shooter” (2006) and has garnered numerous prizes for his writing.  As a playwright he is very slick, having that rare ability to sew into his scripts complex themes that can be appreciated separately or as synergistically supporting a larger, overarching message.  In this case,  in Connemara, the Abreact troupe brought out these thematics quite formidably despite some occasional lapses in their enunciation of the Irish lilt. Nothing lethal here, at all.

See what I mean?  Mr. McDonagh is photographed here beaming at the audience after his Academy Award for a short film he directed. 

The play is about Mick Dowd, played robustly by Frank Zieger, who is the town’s sexton.  We meet him in his home as he sits at a table with Maryjohhnny Rafferty (Connie Cowper), possibly a relative, and listen in on a conversation concerning the need to stack cadavers over one another to make room for new arrivals in an ever-shrinking earth.  Of note is the fact that Mick’s work has now taken him to his deceased wife’s resting place, a piece of hallowed ground he must now disturb by disinterring her remains to, presumably, stack her over or under someone else – like newly-returned books on a rolling cart at a library.

Both Mick and Maryjohhnny (sic), sit over a bottle of Irish “poitin” or “poteen“, a potato-based liquor with a reputation similar to American corn liquor or Everclear.  Although it can be bought today in pubs and licensed stores, it’s history as an homemade, bathtub, tax-evading foul-tasting rot-gut,  also mirrors the history of moonshine in the U.S.A.  The bottle on Mick’s table starts full in Act I and is emptied at the close of the play.           

Mick’s wife died seven years before in an automobile accident.  Up to this time, no one pointed an accusatory finger at Mick.  Nobody suggested foul play.  That is, until Martin Hanlon (Kevin A. Barron) appears, a grandson of Mary’s, who is the epitome of the empty-headed, hyperactive, goldbrick teenager, bent on raising eyebrows with provocative, infantile talk of dead cows in a field, Star Wars,  Mick’s cadavers being pulverized and tossed into a lake and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his wife’s death.  The palaver is fairly harmless until we learn that the town’s constable is Martin’s brother or father, Thomas Hanlon (York R. Griffin), who makes an appearance late in the play and discloses, what this writer believes,  is the hidden master-theme. 

This play is not a mystery, so there’s no harm in discussing its conclusion.  Even the conclusion is hardly conclusory with Mick left alone to finish his bottle with one resigned inhalation.  No revelations are made regarding the wife’s death.  Nobody’s life is changed one way or another.  It ends at the table set starkly in the center of a room in a hardscrabble world of working class frustration, the poteen swilled to medicate and numb the senses.  So what, you might ask is the purpose of all this? 

One of the aspects of the play that initially troubled me and my wife was the seemingly unending and  gratuitous use of that “F-word” as a substitute for ordinary adjectives.  I didn’t count the number of times the male characters used the word, but it must have been around 50 in a play that spanned a mere 90 minutes.  It was jarring at first.  But then, as the playwright unraveled his thematics, the usage of that vulgar expression became more clear as I started to understand that this was not gratuitous at all.  McDonagh was telling his audience about something that was taking place in Irish culture. 

In a scene from the second part, the Abreact production company went an extra mile with so little financing, to create a scene in which Mick and Martin dig up two graves, soil and all,  from a stage that had been cleverly sawed to allow the removal of two sections to perfect the image of a cemetery.  During the intermission, the audience was deliberately permitted to see the actors and production staff prepare the mise en scene in muted light as though to announce proudly their efforts to make the play even more believable.  I liked that alot.  It was a fine cemetery.

In the act of digging up the graves, skulls were removed and separated.  Skulls were taken back home!  Mick hectored the young Martin, telling him that the “willies” of the cadavers were removed for proper burial in conformity with church doctrine.  This caused Martin to rush away and ask the local clergyman about Mick’s pronouncement.  Apparently, Martin returned after receiving a good thrashing from the priest.  The laughter at the graveyard was classic gallows humor – in a way, reminiscent of something Becket would do. 

At home,  Mick (now totally besotted) and Martin,  take small sledgehammers and bust up the skulls they brought back with them.  These are not ordinary skulls.  They are made of gesso; they are solid, unlike real crania.  When the hammers strike, it’s as though they were cleaving rocks, shards splintering off on to the floor, the largest of which are selected for further pulverization, in a scene that lasts over five minutes, the sounds of the hammers loud enough to make you wince, the furniture nobly absorbing the blows – over and over again.  People in the first rows must have spent the night grooming their hair like baboons with all that plaster flying around.  Luckily, your editor and companions had the perspicacity to sit in the upper row of a theatre which accommodated only 45 people, at best.  No particles of plaster sullied my martini.  But what I saw was not the drunken, anarchic, meaningless acts of depressed Irish workers in a Sixty’s English black-and-white movie about the struggles of the U.K.’s working classes with Albert Finney or Tom Courtenay.  No.  I saw the skulls as dead Irish people who lived in a past with a legacy that was now being annihilated. 

Enter Thomas Hanlon, crude, inept constable who lives his life in American detective shows: McMillan and Wife; Quincy, Perry Mason, Columbo.  Not one single Irish program or hero to speak of.  All American television stalwarts with the same running theme:  the hero must secure the clue that will end the episode, hopefully with some measure of surprise.  And so, Thomas begins the inquisition; his pungent allegations thrown about with a seriousness that is, at first blush, disturbing (I did not want them to be true because I like Mick); then the audience realization that Thomas, probably Martin’s brother or father, was a complete fool.  He fancied himself something of a puzzle solver.  Maybe Mick’s wife was Thomas’ sister?  I don’t know for sure. But, all the rantings amount to nothing…filled with sound and fury…signifying nothing.  Nothing comes of all the accusations but the uncomfortable feeling that Thomas has been bewitched and kidnapped by American television.  His Irish personality has been coopted by the slinky, devious Yank.  He dreams of solving a crime the way Quincy would have done it – with clever use of forensics and unparalleled deductive skill.     

And so, we now return to the play as whole.  This writer believes that Mr. McDonagh could have interwoven an entire tractatus of themes in this deceptively simple play.  Mark the Prof, one of our companions to the theater, prefers a socio-economic, class-driven interpretation of the play’s inner core.  I think otherwise.  I see McDonagh denouncing the derangement of Irish society.  The flagrant,
numbskullish use of the “F-word” as a substitute for the beautiful adjectives long deployed by brilliant Irish poets.  The hellish destruction of Ireland’s history as symbolized in the scene when Mick and Martin pulverize the dead with all the memories they bespeak and all the future emptiness they betoken is beaten into the audience with seemingly endless,  earsplitting blows.  The obnoxious presence of Americana,  the blockbuster movies, the detective shows, the absence of anything Irish… everything discussed knells the funereal sound Ireland’s death as island of culture and creative, ebullient society.

I really recommend this play and the Abreact Theater.  You can contact the theater to make reservations at 313-454-1542 or at www.theabreact.com.  The play’s final performance is September 29, 2012.  It’s a BYOB arrangement with beer and wine offered.  The performances are free of charge although they do accept (and deserve) contributions to a box conveniently placed to your left as you enter the theater.  I will discuss what we had for pre-show dinner in my next posting.  I will say good things about the Cass Cafe.